Of the many things that distinguish professional athletes from us mere mortals is their ability to live in an alternative reality.
For almost every player who has “made it”, there is a first team coach or talent scout out there scratching their head over how said player reached the pros when they didn’t appear to have what it takes.
Too often, one gets the impression that the only reason some players even lace up their boots is to prove people wrong because somebody once told them they were too small, too clumsy or just plain didn’t have “it”.
There has been a fair bit of that in Super Rugby this season, where players we were happy to write off last year just refuse to stay in their designated lanes or go away. Here are five of the most stubborn bastards doing the rounds in franchise rugby at the moment.
Elton Jantjies (Lions)
Jantjies has been the premier South African flyhalf for the last two seasons, yet he has finished none of them as the incumbent at Springbok level. You could write a thesis on the things that are supposedly wrong with him (“no BMT, can’t defend, too cocky, has an unfinished hairstyle and too much grease on said incomplete hairstyle… ”).
An indirect consequence of that mistrust has been our seduction by the gifts of every emerging young flyhalf – think Handre Pollard, Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse. Yet Jantjies has consistently improved an aspect of his play each year (tactical kicking this season) and emerged on the winning side in the last 20 SA derbies.
Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks)
When he first hit the scene as a 19-year-old inside centre measuring 1.92m and 102kg, Esterhuizen looked like a flanker, played like a flanker and talked like a flanker. That he had the unpleasant knack of tip-tackling opponents and an aversion to passing only solidified the unfavourable first impression.
Up until this season, he seemed to be one of those SA Under-20 talents which would never kick on because he persisted in being, to put it kindly, a blunt object in a thinking man’s position. Now 1.94m and a whopping 110kg, Esterhuizen is forcing us to reopen the box we’ve always put him in with performances that have him running clever lines, passing and, wait for it, offloading in the tackle.
Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira (Sharks)
Until injury struck late last year, watching Mtawarira’s 2017 season felt like being witness to an ageing pro’s farewell tour. The flame-haired Steven Kitshoff was patiently waiting for the venerable loosehead prop to get his 100th Springbok cap and take over this year.
But injury struck and the Beast finished the year stuck in the nervous 90s (98 caps), and his response has been nothing short of remarkable. At 32 he is playing with the enthusiasm of a teenager, his workrate in attack and defence is, well, beast mode. Good luck taking that number one jersey off him.
Ruan Botha (Sharks)
For someone who was part of the SA Under-20 side that won the country’s last junior world championship, Botha doesn’t get the same love as teammates Kitshoff, Pollard or Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Having started out at the Lions, moved to Western Province and then the Sharks, the 26-year-old Sharks captain has flown largely under the radar in a career which has seen the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Du Toit, Franco Mostert, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman block his path to recognition. But he has stuck to his task manfully, leading the Sharks by example and being an absolute pain in the backside for the opposition as a lock who can play both four and five and contest in the lineout.
Raymond Rhule (Stormers)
About a year ago I asked a Crusaders assistant coach what he thought of the winger. “A flat track bully, mate, great going forward, but hopeless going backwards…”
In a country in which we hang on to every Kiwi’s rugby word, few statements could have been more damning. The sadder thing was, it was true (Rhule missed something like 33 tackles in Super Rugby alone last year). Of the many embarrassing things you can be accused of in rugby, a game whose main currency is courage, not being able to tackle is the worst.
Having moved to the Stormers this year, Rhule’s attack – especially that pirouette and offload in the tackle – has gone up a notch. The praiseworthy thing is he hasn’t disappeared in defence and he still enthusiastically chases kick-offs knowing full well he might get smeared all over the turf by the receiver.